Martha Graham in 1948

Modern dance is a broad genre of western concert or theatrical dance which includes dance styles such as ballet, folk, ethnic, religious, and social dancing; and primarily arose out of Europe and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was considered to have been developed as a rejection of, or rebellion against, classical ballet, and also a way to express social concerns like socioeconomic and cultural factors.[1][2][3]

In the late 19th century, modern dance artists such as Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan, and Loie Fuller were pioneering new forms and practices in what is now called improvisational or free dance. These dancers disregarded ballet's strict movement vocabulary (the particular, limited set of movements that were considered proper to ballet) and stopped wearing corsets and pointe shoes in the search for greater freedom of movement.[3]

Throughout the 20th century, sociopolitical concerns, major historical events, and the development of other art forms contributed to the continued development of modern dance in the United States and Europe. Moving into the 1960s, new ideas about dance began to emerge as a response to earlier dance forms and to social changes. Eventually, postmodern dance artists would reject the formalism of modern dance, and include elements such as performance art, contact improvisation, release technique, and improvisation.[3][4]

American modern dance can be divided (roughly) into three periods or eras. In the Early Modern period (c. 1880–1923), characterized by the work of Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Eleanor King, artistic practice changed radically, but clearly distinct modern dance techniques had not yet emerged. In the Central Modern period (c. 1923–1946), choreographers Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Katherine Dunham, Charles Weidman, and Lester Horton sought to develop distinctively American movement styles and vocabularies, and developed clearly defined and recognizable dance training systems. In the Late Modern period (c. 1946–1957), José Limón, Pearl Primus, Merce Cunningham, Talley Beatty, Erick Hawkins, Anna Sokolow, Anna Halprin, and Paul Taylor introduced clear abstractionism and avant-garde movements, and paved the way for postmodern dance.[5]

Modern dance has evolved with each subsequent generation of participating artists. Artistic content has morphed and shifted from one choreographer to another, as have styles and techniques. Artists such as Graham and Horton developed techniques in the Central Modern Period that are still taught worldwide and numerous other types of modern dance exist today.[1][2]


Modern dance is often considered to have emerged as a rejection of, or rebellion against, classical ballet, although historians have suggested that socioeconomic changes in both the United States and Europe helped to initiate shifts in the dance world. In America, increasing industrialization, the rise of a middle class (which had more disposable income and free time), and the decline of Victorian social strictures led to, among other changes, a new interest in health and physical fitness.[6] "It was in this atmosphere that a 'new dance' was emerging as much from a rejection of social structures as from a dissatisfaction with ballet."[7] During that same period, "the champions of physical education helped to prepare the way for modern dance, and gymnastic exercises served as technical starting points for young women who longed to dance."[8] Women's colleges began offering "aesthetic dance" courses by the end of the 1880s.[9] Emil Rath, who wrote at length about this emerging art form at the time stated,

"Music and rhythmic bodily movement are twin sisters of art, as they have come into existence we see in the artistic work of Isadora Duncan, Maud Allan, and others the use of a form of dancing which strives to portray in movements what the music master expresses in his compositions—interpretative dancing."[10]

Free dance

Isadora Duncan in 1903

Main article: Free dance

Expressionist and early modern dance in Europe

Dancer at the Laban school, Berlin 1929

See also: Expressionist dance and Ausdruckstanz

In Europe, Mary Wigman in Germany, Francois Delsarte, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (Eurhythmics), and Rudolf Laban developed theories of human movement and expression, and methods of instruction that led to the development of European modern and Expressionist dance. Other pioneers included Kurt Jooss (Ausdruckstanz) and Harald Kreutzberg.[12]

Radical dance

Disturbed by the Great Depression and the rising threat of fascism in Europe, the radical dancers tried to raise consciousness by dramatizing the economic, social, ethnic and political crises of their time.

In the United States

Main article: Modern dance in the United States

Early modern dance

Martha Graham and Bertram Ross in 1961; photo by Carl van Vechten

In 1915, Ruth St. Denis founded the Denishawn school and dance company with her husband Ted Shawn.[19] Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman were pupils at the school and members of the dance company. Seeking a wider and more accepting audience for their work, Duncan, Fuller, and Ruth St. Denis toured Europe. Martha Graham is often regarded as the founding mother of modern 20th-century concert dance.[20]

Graham viewed ballet as too one-sided: European, imperialistic, and un-American.[21] She became a student at the Denishawn school in 1916 and then moved to New York City in 1923, where she performed in musical comedies, music halls, and worked on her own choreography.[22] Graham developed her own dance technique, Graham technique, that hinged on concepts of contraction and release.[20] In Graham's teachings, she wanted her students to "Feel". To "Feel", means having a heightened sense of awareness of being grounded to the floor while, at the same time, feeling the energy throughout your entire body, extending it to the audience.[23] Her principal contributions to dance are the focus of the 'center' of the body (as contrast to ballet's emphasis on limbs), coordination between breathing and movement, and a dancer's relationship with the floor.[22]


In 1927, newspapers regularly began assigning dance critics, such as Walter Terry, and Edwin Denby, who approached performances from the viewpoint of a movement specialist rather than as a reviewer of music or drama. Educators accepted modern dance into college and university curricula, first as a part of physical education, then as performing art. Many college teachers were trained at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance, established at Bennington College in 1934.

Of the Bennington program, Agnes de Mille wrote, "...there was a fine commingling of all kinds of artists, musicians, and designers, and secondly, because all those responsible for booking the college concert series across the continent were assembled there. ... free from the limiting strictures of the three big monopolistic managements, who pressed for preference of their European clients. As a consequence, for the first time American dancers were hired to tour America nationwide, and this marked the beginning of their solvency."[24]

African American

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform "Revelations" in 2011.

African American dance blended modern dance with African and Caribbean movement (flexible torso and spine, articulated pelvis, isolation of the limbs, and polyrhythmic movement). Katherine Dunham trained in ballet, founded Ballet Negre in 1936 and then the Katherine Dunham Dance Company based in Chicago. In 1945, she opened a school in New York, teaching Katherine Dunham Technique, African and Caribbean movement integrated with ballet and modern dance.[25][26] Taking inspiration from African-based dance where one part of the body plays against one another, she focused on articulating the torso in her choreography. Pearl Primus drew on African and Caribbean dances to create strong dramatic works characterized by large leaps. She often based her dances on the work of black writers and on racial issues, such as Langston Hughes's 1944 The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and Lewis Allan's 1945 Strange Fruit (1945). Her dance company developed into the Pearl Primus Dance Language Institute.[27] Alvin Ailey studied under Lester Horton, Bella Lewitzky, and later Martha Graham. He spent several years working in both concert and theater dance. In 1958, Ailey and a group of young African-American dancers performed as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York. He drew upon his "blood memories" of Texas, the blues, spirituals and gospel as inspiration. His most popular and critically acclaimed work is Revelations (1960).[28][29][30]

Legacy of modern dance

The legacy of modern dance can be seen in lineage of 20th-century concert dance forms. Although often producing divergent dance forms, many seminal dance artists share a common heritage that can be traced back to free dance.

Postmodern dance

Main article: Postmodern dance

Postmodern dance developed in the 1960s in United States when society questioned truths and ideologies in politics and art. This period was marked by social and cultural experimentation in the arts. Choreographers no longer created specific 'schools' or 'styles'. The influences from different periods of dance became more vague and fragmented.[20]

Contemporary dance

Main article: Contemporary dance

Danceworks rehearsal of "Stone Soup" in 2011 with semi-improvised music from composer Seth Warren-Crow and Apple iLife sound clip "Tour Bus"

Contemporary dance emerged in the 1950s as the dance form that is combining the modern dance elements and the classical ballet elements.[31] It can use elements from non-Western dance cultures, such as African dancing with bent knees as a characteristic trait, and Butoh, Japanese contemporary dancing that developed in the 1950s.[20][32] It incorporates modern European influences, via the work of pioneers like Isadora Duncan.[33]

According to Treva Bedinghaus, "Modern dancers use dancing to express their innermost emotions, often to get closer to their inner-selves. Before attempting to choreograph a routine, the modern dancer decides which emotions to try to convey to the audience. Many modern dancers choose a subject near and dear to their hearts, such as a lost love or a personal failure. The dancer will choose music that relates to the story they wish to tell, or choose to use no music at all, and then choose a costume to reflect their chosen emotions."[34]

Teachers and their students

This list illustrates some important teacher-student relationships in modern dance.

Rudolf von Laban and pupils at his dance school, Berlin 1929

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e "Modern dance". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  2. ^ a b c d "Dancing to Different Rules: How four rebels changed modern dance". Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Foulkes, Julia L. (2002). Modern Bodies Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 978-0807853672.
  4. ^ Scheff, Helene; Marty Sprague; Susan McGreevy-Nichols (2010). Exploring dance forms and styles: a guide to concert, world, social, and historical dance. Human Kinetics. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-7360-8023-1.
  5. ^ Legg, Joshua (2011). Introduction to Modern Dance Techniques. Hightstown, NJ: Princeton Book Company. p. xviii. ISBN 978-0-87127-3253.
  6. ^ Kurth, P. (2001). Isadora: A sensational life. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. pp. 28–29.
  7. ^ Legg, Joshua (2011). Introduction to Modern Dance Techniques. Hightstown, New Jersey: Princeton Book Company. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-87127-3253.
  8. ^ Anderson, Jack (1997). Art Without Boundaries: The world of modern dance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. p. 8.
  9. ^ McPherson, Elizabeth (2008). The Contributions of Martha Hill to American Dance and Dance Education, 1900-1995. Lewisto n: The Edwin Mellen Press. p. 5.
  10. ^ Rath, Emil (1914). Aesthetic Dancing. New York: A. S. Barnes Company. p. v-vi.
  11. ^ "Isadora Duncan | Biography, Dances, Technique, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-02-01.
  12. ^ Müller, Hedwig (21 August 2012) [First published in 1986]. "Expressionism? 'Ausdruckstanz' and the New Dance Theatre in Germany". In Climenhaga, Royd (ed.). The Pina Bausch Sourcebook: The Making of Tanztheater. Routledge. pp. 19–30. ISBN 978-1-136-44920-8.
  13. ^ Ware, Susan. "Notable American Women". Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 305-306.
  14. ^ Siegel, Marcia B. "The Shapes of Change: Images of American Dance". University of California Press, 1979, p. 168-169.
  15. ^ Kisselgoff, Anna (24 November 1994). "Erick Hawkins, a Pioneering Choreographer of American Dance, Is Dead at 85". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 13 April 2016.
  16. ^ Mazo, Joseph H. "Erick Hawkins – dancer and choreographer – Obituary". Dance Magazine (February 1995). Archived from the original on 5 May 2009.
  17. ^ "Paul Taylor". Arts Alive. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  18. ^ "Alwin Nikolais". Arts Alive. Retrieved 19 March 2021.
  19. ^ Cullen, Frank. "Vaudeville: Old & New". Psychology Press, 2007, p. 449.
  20. ^ a b c d "Origins of Contemporary Dance". Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  21. ^ "Modern Dance Pioneers". Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  22. ^ a b "Modern Dance History". Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  23. ^ Bird's Eye View: Dancing with Martha Graham and on Broadway/Dorothy Bird and Joyce Greenberg; with an introduction by Marcia B. Siegel, 1997
  24. ^ de Mille, Agnes (1991). Martha : The Life and Work of Martha Graham. Random House. pp. 20–30. ISBN 0-394-55643-7.
  25. ^ "Katherine Dunham". Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  26. ^ Aschenbenner, Joyce (2002). Katherine Dunham: Dancing a Life. University of Illinois Press.
  27. ^ Mennenga, Lacinda (2008). "Pearl Primus (1919–1994)". BlackPast. Retrieved 3 January 2020.
  28. ^ "'Dancing the Night Away : Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance'. By Jennifer Dunning (Addison-Wesley) : 'The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company'. By Sasha Anawalt (Scribner's) [book reviews]". The Los Angeles Times. 17 November 1996. Retrieved 3 January 2012.
  29. ^ Dunning, Jennifer (1989-12-10). "Alvin Ailey: Believer in the Power of Dance". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  30. ^ "For Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, the themes that inspired its founder are as relevant as ever". The Star. 30 January 2019. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  31. ^ "Difference Between Modern and Contemporary Dance". Retrieved 18 March 2012.
  32. ^ "Contemporary Dance History". Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  33. ^ "Origins of Contemporary Dance". Retrieved 28 February 2012.
  34. ^ "What Is Modern Dance?". Archived from the original on 7 April 2008. Retrieved 20 November 2013.

Further reading